The “Bay of Pigs” Cuban Sandwich @ Best Lil’ Porkhouse, San Rafael

The "Bay of Pigs" Cuban Sandwich @ Best Lil' Porkhouse, San Rafael. Served with mac and cheese.

The “Bay of Pigs” Cuban Sandwich @ Best Lil’ Porkhouse, San Rafael.
Served with mac and cheese.

Two people with normal appetites could probably split the “Bay of Pigs,” pictured above, and leave San Rafael’s Best Lil’ Porkhouse feeling plenty full. It’s an utterly massive sandwich, dense with pork, and although it may not boast as many ingredients as, say, the torta cubana at That’s It Market, the “Bay of Pigs” can certainly match its Mission counterpart pound for pound. BLP’s spin on this classic sandwich is its pulled pork, which accompanies the typical trio of ham, pickles, and melted Swiss. The pulled pork is abundant and delicious; the ham is sliced almost thick enough to be a steak; and the house-made pickles are substantial coins in their own right. Mustard and mayo are standard, and BLP offers four different varieties of house-made barbecue sauce. A side of macaroni and cheese, garnished with minced bacon, ups the ante considerably.

Small Bites @ Ippuku, Berkeley

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Chicken Ramen @ Ippuku, Berkeley. The Ippuku ramen is very modest in flavor compared to the amazing tonkotsu-style ramen that exists in the South Bay. The Western palate will recognize this dish as chicken noodle soup, and for that reason, I don’t really place it in the pantheon of noteworthy Bay Area ramen. Still, I had to sample this dish on principle. In terms of a simple chicken noodle soup, it’s fine.

I’m not sure if the concept of the Japanese izakaya has reached critical mass here in the Bay Area, but I suspect the term itself is still unknown to most people, even among those who count themselves as gourmands.  Essentially, an izakaya is the Japanese version of a gastropub, and the menu will typically offer a wide array of small plates, as well as an impressive selection of sake and beer. In true izakaya style, much of the menu at Ippuku is devoted to yakitori (grilled skewers of meat, especially various chicken parts), although the menu does cover other options. I suppose Ippuku is the East Bay standard for izakaya at the moment, but for me, the best in the Bay Area is still probably Izakaya Sozai in San Francisco.

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Kurobuta Pork Belly @ Ippuku, Berkeley. In Japan, Berkeshire pork is known as kurobuta pork, so these skewers of pork belly represent some of the best heritage pork on the market. I meant to ask about the accompanying sauce, because I wasn’t able to decode it fully. If I had to guess, it may have been a miso-tamarind sauce. Either way, it was a delicious, slightly sweet counterpoint to the grilled pork.

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Karaage Chicken @ Ippuku, Berkeley. I was a little disappointed that this fried chicken didn’t arrive with some sort of mayonnaise for dipping, as is often the case. Still, it was perfectly prepared, and the squeeze of lemon was mostly sufficient.

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Chicken “Oysters” @ Ippuku, Berkeley. If you’ve ever broken down whole chickens, then you may be familiar with the prized “oyster” meat, which is tucked neatly alongside the bird’s backbone. Novice hands will leave these morsels on the carcass. At Ippuku, the chicken oysters are wrapped in skin, and grilled to a crispy, delicious effect.

 

Tonkotsu Ramen @ Kansui, San Jose

Tonkotsu Ramen @ Kansui San Jose.

Tonkotsu Ramen @ Kansui San Jose.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m always intrigued by restaurants that play hard to get. I have a strange fascination with any place that has the gumption to open during odd inconvenient hours. Likewise, I have a fondness for any chef who forbids substitutions. Surly behavior doesn’t faze me one bit (I work in a kitchen, after all), and I admire the Soup Nazi routine if it’s warranted. To me, these are all positive and confident signs, and they communicate almost everything I need to know about a restaurant – namely, that the food is good and that the chef has a clear vision. Customers be damned, if they don’t get it.

Kansui caught my attention about a month ago when I was researching South Bay ramen, and I noticed the restaurant offered abbreviated hours (Tuesday through Saturday, from 11:30am to 1:30pm). Ten business hours per week is unusual by almost any standard, so naturally my curiosity was piqued. I envisioned a ramen house with tonkotsu broth so transcendent that it could sell out of soup within this two-hour window each day. A place where, if you were to show up any time after one o’clock, you probably wouldn’t be served, since the line would already be too long by then. This is the ramen house that I dream about.

I would eventually discover that Kansui offers lunch-only hours for a different reason: The restaurant is the daytime concept of Hay Market Willow Glen, an otherwise American-style restaurant during dinner hours. This arrangement was not exactly what I expected, but my optimism remained intact. I entertained the possibility that Kansui was perhaps a pop-up of sorts, with some entrepreneurial chef, maybe even a recent transplant from Kyushu, making use of Hay Market’s fallow lunchtime space. It was a plausible scenario, but again, I was over-thinking things. Kansui and Hay Market are operated by the same exact folks, end of story.

Admittedly, I was a little disappointed in lack of Kansui’s backstory, although the enigma remains to some extent. It’s still a place where you can only get ramen 10 hours out of the week. More importantly, it’s an admirable bowl of tonkotsu. The broth has the proper richness and depth, the noodles are made in-house, and the barely-boiled egg (usually a telltale sign of quality) is executed perfectly. I’m not sure that Kansui is “destination” ramen for me (since I do live in Napa), but this lunch-only spot seems like a great addition to a neighborhood like Willow Glen.

“The Deal” Burger @ Marrow, Oakland

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“The Deal” Burger @ Marrow, Oakland.

“The Deal” Burger at Marrow is quaint, like its price tag of $9.17, which includes beef-fat fries and a drink. However, if you’re accustomed to half- or third-pound burger patties, you’ll want to supplement your lunch with dessert, a milkshake, or at the very least, a salad. The frail and the elderly could probably get by on “The Deal” alone, and I’m not necessarily saying that as a criticism. I only mention this caveat as a heads-up to the hungry, and a word to the wise: If you’re anything like me, you might just view “The Deal” as a snack.

The Brisket @ Brick Pig’s House, Oakland

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Brisket, creamy potato salad, and cornbread muffins @ Brick Pig’s House, North Oakland.

I visited Everett & Jones for the very last time a few months ago. I promised myself that I’d never go back after I’d suffered through the driest brisket of all time. I usually try to avoid negative reviews in this blog, since I much prefer to compile a list of recommendations. I cook for a living, so I don’t have time to visit every single restaurant in the Bay Area, much less write reviews for all of these restaurants. Therefore, if I have a bad meal, I simply move on, and I don’t mention it. From an aesthetic standpoint, I don’t want to publish pictures of lousy food, and I certainly don’t want to waste my time by rehashing a bogus meal.

But Everett & Jones really let me down this last time. Honestly, I probably should’ve seen it coming, since they’ve always been a little hit-or-miss over the years. I just don’t recall them missing as badly as they did during my most recent visit. Their brisket was egregiously sub-standard that day, and I’m over it. Ultimately, it’s kind of like a break-up: There were good times, there were bad times, but at some point, you just have to sort everything out and make the decision to either move on, or not move on. We all deserve to be happy and to eat well, but I won’t risk paying money for something that unsatisfying ever again. Fool me once.

From now on, I’m getting my East Bay barbecue from Brick Pig’s House on Shattuck, which is less than 10 minutes from Everett & Jones. I’ve only been to BPH once so far, but the brisket (pictured above) already surpassed Everett & Jones on its best day. The meat was tender and it didn’t require sauce, although the sauce was a welcome compliment to be sure. Beyond this basic improvement, the sides were better, the parking was more convenient (no meters), BPH accepts credit cards, and the owners are one of the sweetest couples you’ll ever meet.

I’m smitten. Maybe it’s just the honeymoon phase of a new relationship. Or maybe it’s the real thing.

Napa Valley Barbecue @ Smoakville, Napa

The Brisket "Burnt Ends" Sandwich @ Smoakville, Napa. Nicely charred and piled high.

The Brisket “Burnt Ends” Sandwich @ Smoakville, Napa. Nicely charred and piled high.

When it comes to the truly hidden gems of the Napa Valley, there are several wineries and maybe just a handful of eateries (some brick-and-mortar, some on wheels). Among the latter category, my recent favorite has been Smoakville, a tucked-away barbecue joint that you would probably never discover by accident, unless you took a wrong turn into a hidden cul-de-sac. The fact that Smoakville is geared mostly for take-out makes it all the more elusive – it’s a tiny storefront, with just one table inside and one single picnic table out by the curb.

Like any decent barbecue purveyor, Smoakville offers a small-yet-carnivorous menu, but one that also remains fool-proof, as every item is well-executed, right down to the side dishes, right down to the house-made pickles. I’ve had the pleasure of exploring the Smoakville menu the over last several weeks, and I’ve become sold on the place. Smoakville has quickly become one of my Napa Valley favorites, and quite frankly, it fills a gaping void here in wine country.

But before I delve into the specifics of Smoakville, let’s just take a step back and talk about barbecue in general.

The biggest cliché in barbecue criticism (if we can focus upon this singular niche of food writing for a moment) is the review that begins with “I’m from (insert Southern state here), so I know barbecue.” This assumed expertise is absolutely absurd, and I hate it. For one thing, there are at least three different schools of American barbecue, each thriving in its own region, and each claiming superiority over the rest. There’s already a strong built-in bias towards other perfectly good versions of barbecue.

Even when you set these biases aside, another issue remains: Consider the notion that there’s good barbecue and bad barbecue in the world, and that some of the bad barbecue actually exists in the South. By the same token, I can find bad pizza in New York City, and I know for a fact that there are examples of lousy Mexican food here in California. Mediocre restaurants can get by on location, low prices, convenience, or any combination of the above.

Whatever the case may be, to assume that every person in California is an expert on Mexican food is ridiculous. If this idea was true, then Californians wouldn’t dine at the mediocre places. But they do. And if you’re still reading this rant, then you can probably see the conclusion that I’m about to draw: Just because you hail from a certain culinary region, doesn’t mean that you’ve ever developed discerning taste.  Maybe you have. But maybe you haven’t. Just being from somewhere isn’t enough to be an authority on the cuisine.

I’m a native Californian, and personally, my favorite version of barbecue is Carolina barbecue, mainly because I like vinegar in my sauce and I like pork on my plate. But you can bet I wouldn’t turn down any Texas barbecue if it was good. And what makes it good? Seasoning, succulence. After that, secret sauces and secret spice rubs are great, but these elements cater to personal taste more than anything.

And so that brings me to Smoakville, where everything I’ve had thus far has been very well-prepared and delicious. It’s good, old-fashioned, from-scratch cookery, and the quality and know-how is evident. The local hook is that Smoakville uses old wine barrels (and thus, oak, and this its moniker) to smoke its meats. True-school Southerners, at least the ones who actually know barbecue, may not accept French oak staves in place of pecan, but I say leave your prejudices back in the Bible Belt. You’re in Napa now.

Bún Riêu @ Bún Mam Sóc Trang, Oakland

Bún Riêu @ Bún Mam Sóc Trang, Oakland. Crab meatballs, pork blood, fish tofu and rice noodles.

Bún Riêu @ Bún Mam Sóc Trang, Oakland. Crab meatballs, pork blood, fish tofu and plenty of rice noodles. One step beyond pho.

Hey there. I’ve been absent from these virtual pages quite for a long time, and I’ve missed writing about food. Well, I’m back. If you’ve been wondering, there are several reasons for my lack of updates lately: (1) I’ve changed jobs during the last two months. I’m a pastry chef now, adjusting to the new schedule and routine; (2) I’ve been preparing to teach a class in culinary history this summer. Reading books and composing course materials have monopolized most of my creative energy; and lastly, (3) I’ve been posting most of my updates on Facebook via Instagram. It’s like social media shorthand. If you don’t follow me already, please check me out.

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As a chef, I’m always craving new and different foods, and I’ve really been looking to challenge my palate lately. I decided to drive down to East Oakland today to revisit Bún Mam Sóc Trang, a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant that is perhaps best known for its namesake dish, which is excellent (and for the record, eminently approachable by Western tastes). But since I wanted to broaden my horizons with new flavors, I had to forego my usual choice. Instead, I ordered a large bowl of bún riêu, an exotic soup that was bound to challenge my Western tastes on several fronts.

Where to begin? I suppose the congealed pork blood is probably the most potentially alarming garnish in bún riêu, but I also would argue that it’s also the most benign tasting (aside from the noodles and the vegetables, of course). Ultimately, the pork blood tastes vaguely of pork, yet it doesn’t feature any of the strong flavors associated with offal, despite its liver-like hue. It’s akin to blood sausage, and I’m totally fine with it. I think most Westerners could deal with it if they didn’t know its origins.

Among the other bún riêu accoutrements, I actually found the fish tofu and the crab meatballs to be a bit more challenging, though not off-putting. Contrary to its name, fish tofu contains no tofu, and is, in fact, minced white fish that is bound with soy proteins into a tofu-like form. These little square cakes feature the springiness of firm tofu, with a fishiness that is markedly stronger than, say, the pink-and-white narutomaki fish cakes that appear in some bowls of ramen.

Of course, the featured ingredient in bún riêu is the crab meatball, which is bound with ground shrimp, ground pork and eggs. This mixture is also seasoned with crab paste, which imparts a subtle but definite fermented funk to the dish. Bún riêu is not cioppino-meets-albondigas, as my Western mind had originally imagined. The crab meatballs crumble easily under the prodding of a chopstick, the best versions being somewhat fluffy, sort of like dumplings (or perhaps a sturdy consommé raft, which is actually what I thought of at one point).

The broth of bún riêu is a basic chicken stock with addition of some fresh tomato slices, which colors the soup with its ruddy tinge. No big deal there. The rice noodles are super-tender and somewhat fat, and they’re plentiful, to boot. As with the more familiar pho, bún riêu is served with a plate of aromatic garnishes that allows the diner to tweak the broth is various ways: basil, mint, lime, chili, as well as banana flower and shredded cabbage.

Creme Brulee French Toast @ Alexis Baking Company, Napa

Crème Brûlée French Toast @ Alexis Baking Company, Napa.

Crème Brûlée French Toast @ Alexis Baking Company, Napa.

The concept of “crème brulee French toast” underscores something that I realized long ago: Breakfast and dessert share a common kinship. After all, aren’t breakfast and dessert both typically heavy on eggs, cream and sugar? And isn’t a double chocolate chip muffin really just chocolate cake in disguise? And isn’t an apple turnover just another form of apple pie?

Under these circumstances, the idea of crème brulee French toast is perfectly logical to me; It represents the full-circle evolution from pain perdu to bread pudding to custard. Alexis Baking Company usually offers its crème brulee French toast on the weekends, although I have also been able to order it during the week, usually on a Friday.

And if you happen to stumble upon ABC’s crème brulee French toast during strawberry season, consider yourself all the more fortunate.

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The Chirashi Bowl @ Musashi, Berkeley

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Chirashi Bowl @ Musashi, Berkeley. Ahi, Hamachi, Salmon, Mackerel, Scallop, Octopus, Squid, Monkfish Liver, and Tomago. All served over sushi rice.

My iPhone said the temperature in Berkeley was 63F today, but I’m sure it had to have been pushing 80F. This weather report may sound a bit like bragging, but I’m actually complaining; California is in the midst of a megadrought, with the prospect of dead lawns and raging forest fires in our near future. At the restaurant where I cook, one of our produce purveyors already has asparagus on the radar, which is absurd for mid-February. At this pace, we could be enjoying heirloom tomato BLTs by May.

Although I did manage to eat some cassoulet at Bistro Jeanty while it rained last week, our otherwise warm weather this winter has deprived me of the opportunity to eat the braises and the broths that I usually associate with the winter season. With the sunny weather, sushi has been on my mind since last Friday, when I tried to visit Zushi Puzzle on my way out of San Francisco (I abandoned that mission when parking seemed too prohibitive).

This week, Berkeley beckoned and I set my sights on Musashi, which offers the tremendous price-value quotient that you would expect from a mom-and-pop-style restaurant. At just $18, the sashimi-laden Chirashi covers a broad spectrum of flavors, allowing the diner to sample the lion’s share of Musashi’s sashimi menu (the Chirashi also includes a small bowl of delicious miso soup to start, making it an even better value).

If you were to grade a sushi restaurant in just one sitting, a Chirashi bowl would give you the most insight by far. It encompasses an impressive amount of different proteins, and in the right hands, it can showcase the bounty of our oceans. The sashimi at Musashi — all 10 varieties — were impeccably fresh and delicious. This dish would cost you $50 in New York City.

Book Review: “Beaten, Seared, and Sauced” by Jonathan Dixon

beatensearedsaucedApril will mark the 10-year anniversary of when I first began attending the Culinary Institute of America, which feels difficult to believe. Has it really been that long? One decade removed, and I still lament my student debt each month, and I always try to discourage people, especially young line cooks, from attending my pricey alma mater.

I tell them to instead just keep working, and to push themselves to get into better and better kitchens while they’re young. If, at some point, they feel like they need to learn the academic and scientific side of cooking, then a junior college program can satisfy that requirement at a fraction of the cost.

The paradox to all of this sagacious wisdom is that deep down, I don’t regret my own decision to attend culinary school. I enjoyed the experience immensely, and I still have actual love for many of my CIA classmates, whom I still keep in touch with and visit from time to time.

I was lucky though. By beginning the CIA in April, I avoided having classmates who were fresh out of high school. All of those kids begin to arrive during the summer and fall. I got to observe their degeneracy from a distance, mostly anecdotally, and I couldn’t imagine having to spend six hours of class time with such knuckleheads.

Not that everyone in my class was great. Every now and then my group would be peppered with the occasional numbskull, usually some lost cause who had to retake our next block with us (and who then would be stuck in our “stream” until they failed another block, or got suspended for drinking the cooking wine during class, or whatever). But don’t get me wrong. The memories keep me entertained. I just hated dealing with some of those people at the time.

I find other people’s culinary anecdotes entertaining, so I’m always game for a CIA memoir. Jonathan Dixon’s “Beaten, Seared, and Sauced” is a pretty good one. In the micro-genre of culinary school memoirs, Michael Ruhlman’s popular “The Making of a Chef” is my benchmark, not that it’s perfect by any means.

My main issue with Ruhlman’s book is that he just attended the classes at the CIA, he wasn’t a true culinary student who had to take practicals and go on externship. I don’t think he took all of the classes, either (“The Making of a Chef” is one of the books I read right before I attended the CIA, so my memory has become hazy after 10 years).

In contrast, “Beaten, Seared, and Sauced” earns big points for the author’s willingness to take the first-person approach to a deeper level. Ruhlman does portray an entertaining and vivid portrait in his book, but Dixon actually becomes a student and completes the program, externship at all.

As a former culinary student, I find this entire approach much more entertaining, and having walked in those clogs, I’m also convinced that one must go “all in” to fully understand the CIA experience (you should also have to start off in the dorms, if you really want to view the entire circus — neither Ruhlman nor Dixon ever lived on campus).

With the anniversary of my own time at the CIA in mind, I purchased “Beaten, Seared, and Sauced” in hope of reading some familiar names. It didn’t work out that way; I only shared one common chef with the author (and that was Chef Smythe from Cuisines of Asia). But even though Dixon encountered different instructors during his time at the CIA, his book remains rife with familiar archetypes: the arguments about doing dishes, impetuous know-it-all know-nothings, hoarding equipment and ingredients, and much of the rest.

Despite his successes, it remains a shame that Dixon couldn’t complete the entire program with the same core group whom he began with (the author must delay his externship to take a writing assignment, and thus falls off pace with the students in his original stream). Of course, there’s no saying for sure, but this separation may have cost the book some dramatic tension.

From a simple narrative perspective, I feel that story lines have better opportunity to emerge when the bonds, alliances and rifts have ample time to become fully fleshed out. As a result, the book lacks recognizable secondary characters. Regardless, if I had to recommend either “The Making  of a Chef” or “Beaten, Seared, and Sauced” to a potential culinary student, I’d probably recommend “Beaten,” just based upon its externship chapters, which I found by far the most compelling.

But before I recommended either book, I’d first recommend that they don’t go to culinary school at all.